I found out about the Telegraph Creative Writing Group when I joined an Open University online writing course in 2011 and followed a link from there to the TCWG Short Story Competition. Entering the contest was my first attempt at setting up a blog site and I still remember how nervous I felt about posting my work up in public. But it proved to be the perfect place to practise my emerging skills as a short story writer, and in the 11 years since I posted up my first story in 2012 I haven’t felt the need to enter stories into other competitions. Over the years the group has kept me writing, offering long-distance companionship, insightful critique, and a source of inspiration and ideas when I needed something to keep me going.
Initially my short stories were huge projects each month; with my interest in historical fiction, they often took a mass of research and I created a draft that was far too long, editing it down over several days to squeeze it under the 3000 word limit. I still have my ‘Writer of the Year 2012’ certificate – a lot of work went into those stories – and hold happy memories of meeting some of the group members in person in Portbury, including Bleda in his elegant Mercedes, and Maggy who became a dear friend.
Since then, through participating in the monthly contest, I’ve learned a lot about writing effective short stories. These days, with my main project being a historical novel, my short stories are less frequent, usually contemporary, and shorter, around the 1200-1500 word mark. I used to try to write a mini-novel each month. Now, although my narrative may look back at various points in the past or even glimpse the future, I aim to focus on a single moment and a single point of view.
Even in the months when I haven’t entered a story it’s been an education to read other people’s entries and discover what works and what doesn’t. I always feel pleased with myself if I find, when the final scores are totted up, that my votes prove that I spotted the winner and runners up.
It was a shame when, a number of years ago, the My Telegraph platform could no longer support us, closing down the lively ‘results night’ chat forum and resulting in the loss of a number of long-term contributors. Since then, our members have battled manfully and womanfully with WordPress and Facebook, while most of us (who are not getting any younger) have had health or family issues that, at one point or another, have stopped us from participating.
Yet through all these difficulties Bleda/Atiller/Francis Clack/‘MW’ has been a true gentleman and the perfect leader for this writing group – humorous, sharp-witted, discerning, unfailingly courteous and a master of organisation.
Bleda’s cheerfully illustrated and detailed competition announcements have always set exactly the right tone: welcoming, jolly, yet thought-provoking. ‘You CAN think up a story about this topic’ they seemed to say. Sometimes, of course, I couldn’t, but then, nobody’s perfect!
Meanwhile the fearsome sibling Atiller was typing away in the attic/shed/cellar, producing another instalment of the engaging and dramatic narratives in which he excelled. Despite the constant criticism which he had to endure from his brother, the rollicking and at times comedic adventures of his well-drawn characters always drew his reader in and sometimes became a gripping series over a three-month period.
As each contest drew to a close, Francis Clack with his Bar and Rest Rooms over on Facebook could be relied upon for an online serenade and a virtual packet of Pork Scratchings.
Online groups are very difficult to maintain and, in my experience, unless they have a strong sense of purpose and companionship they often decline in less than a year into irrelevant meme-sharing or petty bickering. To have kept the TCWG short story contest going in the same form for over a decade – and published four anthologies – is a huge achievement.
I can’t praise Bleda and this group without blowing my own trumpet. As someone who won the Wexford Literary Festival ‘Meet the Publisher’ competition and is currently working on her third novel, I’m proud to say that being a member of the TCWG has helped make me into the writer I am.
So: – whether Attila or Bleda or both, or neither – thanks, Hun!